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Kovar Systems
Student Retention Point to Ponder

Can Unstructured Play in Nature Help Retention?

By Karen Valentine

Today’s blog comes from friend and ProMAC Select member, Karen Valentine.  Karen Valentine is co-owner of Practical Martial Arts located in Corte Madera, California.

nature dojo.jpgThink of your favorite childhood memories. How many of them were indoors? How many were outdoors? My guess is at least one was tied to the outdoors, and likely several didn’t involve structured play like formalized, adult-led activities.

Why is this important? Well, the average American child is said to spend 4 to 7 minutes a day in unstructured play outdoors and over 7 hours a day in front of a screen. That’s longer than a school day! I think we are all beginning to realize the hazards of too much screen time: it’s readily available and highly addictive. This excessive screen time is contributing to obesity (due to being sedentary), poor sleep (due to the blue light interfering with melatonin production), visual problems (increased rates of near sightedness), neck pain (from craning to look down), drug-like addiction (the dopamine spikes caused by devices are similar to that of drug addiction) and more. It is being shown to cause actual functional and structural changes in the brain. It’s making our kids more irritable, impulsive and less focused.

nature dojo 2.jpgWhat’s the antidote? As a mom of two boys I wondered that too. I came across Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods. In it, he coins the phrase “Nature Deficit Disorder”. As a dad in suburban San Diego he started to see a shift away from nature. The development he lived in created rules about kids in trees or in the creeks – to protect the trees and creek. The insurance companies wanted to avoid lawsuits so more and more playgrounds were built to try to limit concerns of injury. Parents were afraid of child abduction. And with the introduction of smart phones and online gaming kids just weren’t as interested anyway.

“I like to play indoors better ‘cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.” - 4th grader from San Diego interviewed for Last Child in the Woods

As martial artists we are all about structure & discipline. How then can unstructured play aid in retention at our schools? Also, our dojos are inside, so why be outside in nature?

nature dojo 3.jpgThat’s when I realized that our dojo had a unique opportunity to help stem the tide of "nature deficit." Richard Louv has a website: http://www.childrenandnature.org/ where he encourages families to create and share ‘Nature Clubs’. It dawned on me how cool it would be to start one called “Nature’s Dojo”. Dojo means ‘a place where one learns the way’ so this would be ‘a place where one learns the way of nature’. I wondered if I could get anyone on board with me so I started talking to the parents at our dojo. Every single person I talked to loved the idea and supported my endeavor.

I researched how to set up a Nature Playgroup; it was really quite simple: Pick a place and invite people! You don’t need to be any sort of expert. Here’s a link to a Tool Kit with lots of good information: http://www.childrenandnature.org/learn/toolkits/. I mapped out two main components & basic etiquette:

  1. Raw Nature.
    Choose a place that is open to possibilities and that has as few restrictions as possible. Trees are great, as is the beach. All sources of water are naturally attractive and invite play. Playgrounds and ball fields are too structured and do not invite the creativity or imagination that is needed here. Raw nature has proven benefits: increased D3, improved circadian rhythms, mood boost, improved memory & focus, lower blood pressure, less rumination and more.
  2. Unstructured Play.
    As martial artists we don’t see a lot of unstructured time in our dojos and the kids don’t see it at school much at all. Yet it’s the unstructured part that is critical here. We need to give kids the opportunity to make choices, create, explore, be bored and manage whatever without adult intervention (aside from emergencies). Unstructured play has proven benefits: improved self-esteem, increased cooperation, emotional regulation, imagination, empathy, increased problem solving skills, executive function improved motor skills and more.
  3. Etiquette. I came up with 5 basic rules:
  • Get dirty
  • Try something new
  • Show respect
  • Have fun
  • Be present

nature dojo 4.jpgTogether these components are powerful. Take a look at this short video I made from our first meeting at one of my favorite places on Earth, Slide Ranch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X84d1SQY8qM. One of the moms that attended told me that her job had been really difficult lately and it wasn’t until she came out with us that realized just how stressed she was. It wasn’t until she felt the absence of her stress and the feeling of calm that she realized she needed to make a change at work. She could tell that continuing on at that level was not good for her. She thanked me and said “I thought this was to benefit my child but it benefitted me just as much!”

How does this pertain to retention? I went back to that first Nature’s Dojo event and counted 13 kids and their families in attendance. Of those 13 kids, 10 of them are still training with us 5 years later! I am not saying that Nature’s Dojo is THE thing that kept them with us. What I am saying is that when we involve kids and families in a holistic way and care about them on and off the mat, we create an environment that becomes a part of them in a bigger way. We help kids generalize lessons learned in the dojo to the outside world and we globalize our relationships with them. We connect with the entire family, not just the kid that is training. Through play and exploration we bond and connect in a deeper way therefore building longer lasting relationships – and retention is all about relationships.

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.  -John Muir  The Yosemite (1912)


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by Karen Valentine